Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Harp of Burma by Michio Takeyama

Harp of Burma by Michio Takeyama (1948, tran.  from the Japanese 1966 by Howard Hibbett, 132 pages)

Michio Takeyama (1903 to 1984-Osaka, Japan) was a professor of German and translated works by Goethe, Nietzsche, and Albert Schweitzer into Japanese.  After graduating from Tokyo Imperial University he was sent by the Imperial Ministry of Education to study in Paris and Berlin.   He was not a supporter of the alliance of Japan with Italy and Germany and wrote a newspaper article opposing the Tripartite Alliance of the three countries prior to the start of WWII.   After the war he wrote The Burmese Harp (his only translated work) which made him world famous.  It was made into a very successful movie.  The translation of his work was sponsored by UNESCO.   The Burmese Harp tells the story of a group of Japanese soldiers in Burma who know the war is lost and who do not want to die for nothing.   The standard image of the Japanese soldier is that of a mindless fanatic who wishes to do nothing more than die for his Imperial God.     The soldiers in The Burmese Harp have been through hell.   They have been through years of constant fear from the British troops who are successfully taking back Burma (I decline for my own reasons to call it Myanmar) and from the Gurkhas whose knives they fear even worse.   They have been hungry for years, many have tropical diseases, they know somehow that Japan has been nearly destroyed by Allied Bombing and they do not know how their family and loved ones are doing back in Japan.

The soldiers in this unit do have something special.   They have a captain who encourages them to sing and a wonderfully strong corporal who plays the Burmese harp to keep up their spirits.   Compared to other units, the morale of the men in this group is very high.    The Captain gets word that the war is over and they surrender to the British.   As was normal, his unit was placed in a POW camp where they were told they would stay for a few months before being sent back to Japan.   The British Captain treats them with respect.   One day he approaches the Japanese captain and tells him he wants him to send a man into the jungle to advise a Japanese unit there that the war is over.    This is a very dangerous mission.    The harp player volunteers knowing he may well be killed as a coward by the men he will approach.    The harp player never returns from the mission.   He was sort of the heart of the unit.    The story is narrated in the first person by one of the soldiers and he often talks about the Burmese monks.   One day they see a Burmese monk who looks just like the harp player.     Some of the men in the unit ask him if he is their missing comrade but he denies it.    As the story goes on the narrator talks of how the culture of the Japanese lead them into a horrible war which devastated their country and took them to a terrible defeat while the much simpler almost primitive seeming Burmese want only to live in peace.   It does turn out the monk is the missing harp player.   He admits his identity when he finds out his old unit is being released and sent back to Japan.   He had been observing them the whole time and longed to be with them.     While in the jungle he had undergone a kind of conversion to the core values of Buddhism.    He had lived for months as a Burmese monk wandering the jungle and supported by the offerings of the Burmese.   Everywhere he went in the jungle he was increasingly horrified to see 1000s of unburied bodies of fallen Japanese.   He had committed to make his life mission to bury as many of these bodies as he could.    He sent a long letter to his friends to explain his decision:

We Japanese have not cared to make strenuous spiritual efforts.   We have not even recognized their value.  What we stressed was a man's abilities, the things he could do-not what kind of man he was, how he lived, or the depth of his understanding.   Of perfection as a human being, of humility, stoicism, holiness, the capacity to gain salvation and to help others to it-of all these virtues we were left ignorant.   I hope to spend the rest of my life seeking them as a monk in this foreign land...Our country has waged a war and lost it and is now suffering.   That is because we were greedy, because we were so arrogant that we forgot human values.  
Harp of Burma is an amazing book.    It affirms the deepest values of Buddhism and makes us see the horrors of war.    For western readers, it lets us see the humanity of the Japanese soldier.   You can read it in a few hours but I do not think you will soon forget the sound of the Burmese harp echoing a message of peace and faith through the Burmese jungle.    We can all learn a lot from the attitude of the Burmese people as depicted in this marvelous tale.   I recommend this book without reservation.   I think it is the first post WWII Japanese novel to harshly condemn the role of the Japanese in causing the horrors of WWII.    UNESCO was right to treat this book as a world class cultural treasure.


Fred said...


I agree with you wholeheartedly about the novel, _The Harp of Burma_, and the film, _The Burmese Harp. I was so impressed by them that I posted two commentaries: one on the novel and the film, and one on the two Japanese anti-war films directed by Ichikawa, _The Burmese Harp_ and _Fires on the Plain_.

me. said...

Hopefully i'll get to reading this book soon,thanks for the review.